It’s hard to imagine now why it took the combined legislative clout of two presidential candidates, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama–opponents in the historic 2008 election–to make it possible for a low-power community radio station, like Cambridge’s WHCP 105.1 FM (if you can find it on your radio dial), to make its on-air debut.
The station, located on Race Street in the downtown historic district, celebrated its fifth anniversary with an online celebration in March. But WHCP’s Friday the 13th fundraiser that month was canceled by Gov. Larry Hogan’s COVID-19 lockdown order announced the day before. Timing challenges for founder/general manager Mike Starling and other low-power radio pioneers stretch back well before its January 2015 launch. But thanks to listeners’ support, broadcast equipment donated through a career’s worth of NPR connections, a staff of 50 volunteers and three paid professionals–Starling, program director Doug Scheutz and morning DJ Bruce Patrick–WHCP has become “a companion and a watercooler for thoughtful conversation. We’ve become infectious–in a good way,” Starling says with a laugh.
Among the volunteers, an eclectic ensemble of music lovers with diverse tastes ranging from big-band to Boomer greatest hits, are the “Sublime Nine” original on-air hosts who attended WHCP’s fifth-anniversary observance virtually. “They’re all still doing their shows for us,” Starling says, noting their passion and expertise. For instance, he cites Cheryl Campbell, an event planner who hosts “Celtic Crossroads” on weekends. “She’s now on an Intercoastal Waterway cruise,” Starling says. “Cheryl goes to the captain and says, ‘Hey, I need a little satellite time to send in my show on my Mac.’”
Drew Sheckler pulls double-duty with “Indy City,” in which he endeavors to discover music by new artists, and “JazzmaTazz,” which helps sate his other musical addiction. Meanwhile, Diane Marquette has a rule for her children, which Starling learned applies to him, too. “Do NOT call me when Jim’s show is on!” That would be 7 p.m. for “Swingin’ with Jim,” her husband. As Starling puts it, “Jim curates his show,” presenting the big-band sounds of Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, and the greats from the genre’s 1940s hey-day.
A relative newcomer, “Dr. Donna, a vet”–veterinarian Donna Flaggs of East New Market–“is into the blues,” Starling understates. The host of “Lady Spins the Blues” totes stacks of vinyl with her. “That’s why we have two turntables,” Starling says.
To fill the classical music niche, WHCP imports a Sunday program from North Carolina, “Concierto,” hosted by a bilingual DJ who introduces symphony hall selections in Spanish and English.
Overnight you can tune into the Grateful Dead marathon. “Raising the Dead” takes you to near dawn and morning programming anchored by “MidShore Wakeup with Bruce Patrick.”
Interspersed in WHCP’s 24/7 programming are community news and happenings featured on such shows as “Midshore Midday” and “Cambridge Conversations,” of which Starling says, “We just try to be a good conduit and stay out of the way.” That approach, he says, lets the word out, unfiltered. “Those are the real gems of what we do here,” he adds.
Chief among recent highlights was WHCP’s coverage of the unveiling of the traveling statue of Harriet Tubman and a young girl, presumably a slave she led to freedom. Wesley Wooford, who sculpted the nine-foot-high figurative depiction of flight from bondage, said of his subject, “I think [Tubman] is so symbolic of freedom in a way that just speaks across everything.” Wooford suggested that the scene–Tubman and the child in rapid stride–represented the instant “when she stepped over that state line” to freedom in Pennsylvania.
“I have to say how touched I was when the names [of Dorchester slaves] were being read,” said Circuit Administrative Judge Brett Wilson, who addressed those gathered for the Sept. 12 Day of Resilience unveiling. “It brings a tear to your eye because I imagine those names came from an inventory just like property. Now, we have the statue of Harriet Tubman on the Dorchester County Courthouse lawn, not a statue of the people who fought to keep her enslaved,” Wilson said in a thinly veiled reference to the Talbot Boys statue on the courthouse lawn in Easton. (The Tubman statue moved on earlier this month.)
Since COVID-19 shut down the station’s open-door, open-mic policy for community announcements, WHCP has turned, like others, to Skype and Zoom to “maintain the flow of content,” Starling says. In a particularly vital community service, he adds, “We looped the county health department into a series on Wednesdays about the evolving set of COVID guidelines. One on reopening schools drew 6,000 people to our broadcast and video-stream on Facebook and YouTube.”
Although WHCP, like other low-power community stations, is nonprofit, it carries messages by local businesses. “They’re not commercials,” says Starling. “These are acknowledgments of those who underwrite what we do here,” similar to what his NPR alma mater does.
As I tried to tune in from home in Easton to prepare for this story, the term “low power” became readily apparent. After futilely fumbling around on my alarm-clock radio, I backed my car out of the garage to capture the signal in my driveway. That’s because LPFM signals are limited to 100 watts. (Many lightbulbs match that wattage.) You can receive WHCP over the air only a few miles in any direction from downtown Cambridge. You can also listen online, available worldwide if you download an app or Foxfire as a web browser. But for technical reasons that Starling says will be fixed, such browsers as Google Chrome cannot link you to WHCP.
That WHCP exists at all recalls the high-powered fight on Capitol Hill over low-power radio dating back to the turn of the millennium. “There was teeth-gnashing by incumbent broadcasters,” Starling says, “mostly about signal interference,” which kept a bill from coming to a vote until 2010–even with McCain as a sponsor and Obama as a co-sponsor. Ultimately, Obama signed it into law as president in 2011.
By the time the station was ready to launch four years later, all that remained was to come up with four call letters. “The first three came naturally,” says Starling. “W, of course, and then HC, for Historic Cambridge. But I struggled with the fourth letter. Then Doug [Schuetz, program director] called me. ‘I’ve got it!… P! WHCP for We Help Cambridge Prosper.’
“And that became our mission.”
This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information or to make a donation to WHCP please go here.
Steve Parks is a retired arts writer now living in Easton.
WHCP 101.5 FM
Studio call-in line: 443-637-6000
“Listen Live, Listen Virtual” community concert, noon-6 p.m. Oct. 31, whcp.org, streaming on Facebook and YouTube